Participation in service learning increases young people’s participation in politics by 12%. This is the headline finding from our new report that marks the end of a 4 year research project with the National Citizen Service Trust (NCS Trust) and UCL’s Department of Political Science.
This is new and promising information. Before now, we didn’t really know whether programmes of service learning were ‘pools or schools of democracy’. Our research points firmly to the latter.
Why youth political participation matters
Young people vote, contact politicians, petition and protest less than any other age group in the UK – and research from across the globe echoes this trend. This is bad for them, because policy doesn’t represent their interests as much as it could, and bad for democracy, because we are missing out on valuable voices in important debates. A lot of public money is spent on programmes of service learning as a solution to this problem. In England, for example, up to £1bn was made available to NCS by the UK government in 2015, dependent on demand from young people. Approximately 600,000 young people have completed the programme to date. It’s imperative therefore to evaluate the effectiveness of these programmes and to find out ways to improve them.
The effects of service learning
Taking a combined measure of political engagement that includes petition signing, petition organising, directly contacting politicians, protest and voting, we found that NCS increased political participation by 3.1 percentage points (pp) (equivalent to 12% above the baseline rate).
The impact on petition signing and protest were even bigger (5.4pp (13%) and 4.9pp (63%) respectively). If volunteering programmes like NCS were scaled up to all 16-25 year olds in England – and these effects were replicated – they would quickly become the second-highest participating age group in non-electoral politics in the country (as opposed to the second lowest, as they are currently).
How and why service learning boosts political engagement
So what is it about service learning that motivates young people to get involved? Confidence seems to be key. NCS involves stepping out of your comfort zone, interacting with new people and forging relationships with those outside your direct social sphere. Unsurprisingly then, it brings with it a new confidence in novel social interactions. Of the young people who did experience a boost in political engagement, an improvement in their social confidence seemed to be critical to their new found activism.
This is a fairly new idea, but makes sense when we consider that young people are particularly sensitive to the social world; their sense of self-worth is more closely tied to the opinions of others and they fear social exclusion more than adults do. The young people that we interviewed as part of this research often thought that political participation (even emailing a politician) would lead to uncomfortable new social interactions. Doing NCS made them feel less afraid of these possibilities, so they were more likely to give it a go.
However, it is worth noting that backfire effects are possible and the average stats mask a lot of variation. For instance, we found that some young people participated less in political activities after service learning. For example, one graduate of NCS had been highly politically engaged before NCS – campaigning regularly for a political party. On NCS, he had a very positive experience of helping out at a homeless shelter, seeing immediate benefits for the people who used the service. This made him feel like he could make a real difference through volunteering. His political participation suddenly seemed less effective in this light, so he had decided to focus more of his time on non-political voluntary work in the future. In psychological jargon, gains in service self-efficacy can lead to losses in political self-efficacy and, therefore, a reduction in political participation for some young people.
It is clear that all is not lost when it comes to engaging Gen-Zers and future generations in political activity. Our research shows that service learning programmes like NCS can light the political spark in young people by building their confidence to engage in new social and political situations. If policy-makers want to increase youth engagement in politics, service learning is a good place to start.